The effort to succeed Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting started three years early, with a gaggle of unlikely candidates lining up at the starting gate.
They include a disgraced former prime minister, a world chess grandmaster, the current Minister of Defense, and the pro-Kremlin speaker of Russia's parliament, the Federal Assembly. Although the Constitution bars him from seeking a third term, many experts say Mr. Putin cannot be counted out.
Russians are calling it the "2008 problem." Putin has constructed an increasingly autocratic system that depends largely on his personal control. Unless a trusted successor takes the helm, some fear that a change in leadership could provoke conflict among Russia's fractious elites.
A law passed last month by the State Duma, Russia's powerful pro-Kremlim chamber of the Federal Assembly, will create a Public Chamber, a citizens' assembly made up of representatives handpicked by Putin. Experts say it could be the launchpad for a new constitutional project that might extend the president's term or return him to office under a new system of power.
Putin, elected to a second four-year term by an electoral landslide last March, seemed unassailable just a few months ago. But a series of political shocks, including a democratic upheaval in neighboring Ukraine and an ongoing wave of protests by impoverished Russian pensioners, have unnerved the Kremlin and inspired a few opponents to position themselves as presidential candidates.
"A number of disastrous mistakes of the authorities have led to a very serious crisis of power," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The main problem is a dramatic loss of confidence in Putin by the power elites. This has plunged the system into instability, and brought new challengers into the open."
The would-be candidates for Putin's job include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, fired by the Kremlin a year ago. He has made several statements slamming Putin's authoritarian drift. And he's hinted that he might lead a democratic revolt such as the one that overturned a fraudulent election and vaulted former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko into Ukraine's presidency late last year.
"The main thing is not who it's going to be," Mr. Kasyanov said recently. "The main thing is that whoever comes to power spearheads a movement toward democratic values."
In March, Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, arguably the strongest chess player in history, quit the game to nurture what many experts say may be his own presidential run. "I've done everything in chess that I could," Mr. Kasparov said. "Now I intend to use my intellect and strategic thinking in Russian politics."
While few experts take Mr. Kasparov's challenge seriously, some say Kasyanov could be a key contender. "Kasyanov has calculated it well," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "The fact they've started campaigning now suggests the present authorities may not have three years. Something may happen soon."
Russia's largest democratic liberal party, Yabloko, which failed to win the votes needed to enter Federal Assembly in 2003, announced recently that it aims to build a broad democratic coalition to serve as a springboard for anti-Putin forces in the 2007 Duma elections and the presidential polls in 2008.
"We need to unite everyone who believes Russia has a chance to be a European country, with democracy, press freedom, and a competitive economy," says Alexander Shishlov, a member of Yabloko's governing bureau. "We must move into action now."
Experts say the Kremlin has ordered two Putin confidantes, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, to raise their public profiles as potential presidential heirs in 2008.
But the failure of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to secure his own successor through fixed elections last year may have the Kremlin doubting its ability to carry off a similar operation.
"The events in Ukraine scared Russia's authorities," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "It showed the system of control, though stable now, has its limits."
Former President Boris Yeltsin, seriously ill and hobbled by corruption scandals, kept everyone guessing until the last moment about his plans for the succession. He went through a string of prime ministers - the legal heir under Russian law - before appointing Putin in August 1999. Four months later, Mr. Yeltsin abruptly resigned, giving Putin time to consolidate his grip as acting president before having to face elections.
A likely scenario, many experts suggest, is that the Kremlin will do an end run around all its opponents by reworking Russia's Constitution to keep Putin himself in office after 2008.
"A new group of oligarchs has come to power under Putin" who stand to lose a lot if he leaves, says Dmitri Oreshkin, an expert with the Merkator Group, a political consultancy. "Putin himself has developed a taste for power. It would be difficult for him to part from it."
The Public Chamber will be a kind of parallel parliament, proposed by Putin after last September's terrorist siege in Beslan to "increase citizens' participation in government."
All delegates to the 126-member body would be appointed by the president or his representatives. The Chamber could put forward sweeping constitutional revisions by the end of this year.
"The Public Chamber can put forward the initiative to change the Constitution, and it will seem to have come from the public," says Mr. Pribylovsky. He says Putin has the necessary backing in the Duma and Russia's regions to impose a new charter, which could include a third term for the president or a whole new system of power, but needs to get started now to have changes in place by 2008.
The idea of rewriting fundamental law to suit one man may sound odd to Americans, but Russian Constitutions have frequently been the playthings of individual leaders. Every major head of state since Czar Nicholas II has produced his own, including Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin in 1936, Leonid Brezhnev in 1978, and Boris Yeltsin in 1993. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was working on his version when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
"Putin's citadel has weakened," says Mr. Oreshkin. "The idea at the top now is that they should do everything to stay in power, at any cost."